03/23/2007 12:00AM

Lara off and running on his own


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Jorge Lara came to Oaklawn Park this winter with the intent of helping his longtime boss, trainer Cole Norman, win his seventh straight title at the track. But less than a month into the meet, Lara moved into the role of trainer of most of the horses that were in Norman's care, and under difficult circumstances he is now making his own bid for the title at Oaklawn.

Lara became the trainer of record for Norman's stable the second week of February, days after Norman was involved in a head-on car collision that left an 86-year-old woman dead. Following the accident, Norman returned to Louisiana to focus on personal matters, and most of his owners decided to transfer their horses to Lara, who has worked as an assistant to Norman since 2003.

Lara has 45 horses in training at Oaklawn, and as of Thursday ranked second in the standings, two wins behind leader Steve Asmussen.

"I came here working as an assistant to Cole, but suddenly things changed and it's been like a roller-coaster for me," said Lara, a 36-year-old native of Mexico. "A lot of pressure and a lot of stress, but everything's going good so far. I've got to thank all the owners for giving me a shot."

Lara has won with 18 of 58 starters at the meet, and his 31-percent win rate is the second-highest among the top 15 trainers at Oaklawn. He said the strong showing is due in part the fact Norman traditionally rests his horses between the close of Louisiana Downs and the beginning of this meet.

"When we first came here, we came with a lot of horses that hadn't run in a while, a bunch, they just needed a race," said Lara. "And when I took over, they were ready to run."

To his credit, Lara has spotted his horses well, and brings a strong horse background to his new role as trainer. His father, Ted Lara, was a jockey for a brief while and was a longtime exercise rider for trainer Bob Holthus.

Lara, himself, competed as a jockey, and was the leading apprentice at The Meadowlands in 1989. Lara won his first in the U.S. aboard Max Moriah for trainer Don Allman on March 7, 1989. A friend of Lara's recently found a picture of the win at a flea market near Oaklawn.

"This is the first career win in the U.S.," he said. "I only rode for a couple of weeks before in Mexico, but I couldn't make the weight. I was supposed to ride with 93 pounds, back in that year. My dad said, 'Why don't you come over here? You don't have to ride so light.' So he brought me over here, and this is the first track I came to."

Oaklawn is also the site of Lara's first win as a trainer, with Scat Cat Jamey on Feb. 15. He also registered his first career stakes win here, with True Tails in the $50,000 Spring Fever on March 3. She is now being pointed for the $50,000 Carousel here March 31.

"This year, she's at her best," said Lara. "The last race was not an easy race, so she proved herself."

Lara said Course, an impressive maiden winner, could make his next start in the $50,000 Rainbow Stakes here April 1.

Following the meet, Lara plans to split his stable between Lone Star and Louisiana Downs. And the barn is growing. Lara, whose assistant is his brother, Oscar Lara, will have young horses shipping into his stable in April and May.

Jorge Lara has also been active in the claim box, taking a number of horses for Texas resident Jan Haynes. She is the third-leading owner at Oaklawn, and one of Lara's biggest clients. Other top clients in his barn include Mary and Gary West.

Lara said Norman is doing well, and remains in Louisiana. No charges had been filed in the case as of Friday.

* Kettleoneup, who finished second by a head to India in the Grade 3, $175,000 Azeri Breeders' Cup here March 10, will make her next start in one of two stakes. Trainer Mike Tomlinson said she is being considered for the Grade 3, $250,000 Sixty Sails at Hawthorne on April 21, or the $100,000 Bayakoa here on April 11.

* Jonesboro, winner of the Grade 3 Essex here Feb. 10, worked a half-mile in 49.40 seconds on Friday. He is being pointed for the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, said his trainer, Randy Morse.

* Multiple stakes winner Brownie Points could make her seasonal debut in the Bayakoa, said her trainer, Donnie Von Hemel.

* Ermine worked five furlongs in 1:03.60 here Friday in preparation for the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom.

* Jockeys Cliff Berry and Luis Quinonez are both serving suspensions for riding infractions through Wednesday.